In Ohio, the Third Grade Guarantee has every school district in the state abuzz. Schools are filled with teachers and administrators who are anxiously, and hastily making plans and decisions to align with this state mandate. There is a mad dash to ensure that teachers are considered ‘qualified’ by the state, along with a scramble to ensure that the state approves of both assessments and interventions in place for struggling readers. The focus right now is heavily on compliance.
It’s a sad but truthful statement that in the field of education, actions driven by a sense of compliance are rarely effective ones. Instead three things should drive actions that are taken: data, research, and the intent to truly improve reading instruction.
1. Data driven decisions
Some schools are completely abandoning practices and procedures that were being used in the past, without systematically evaluating their effectiveness. A better use of district time and attention would be to see what is working and what is not. Often we think scrapping everything and starting over must be easier than adjusting what we currently use, and it also appears so much easier to share with state officials.
“We will be implementing Core Reading Program A in all classrooms next year, and this program is research based” is a lot easier to state in a report than, “We are currently using Core Reading Program B, and it has proven effective in that 80% or more of our students are reaching benchmark. We realize that the program lacks high quality literature for the small group portion of instruction, especially for the struggling readers, however we have addressed this by selecting multiple copies of high quality, engaging and motivating literature to replace these.”
Are classroom teachers already reaching the majority (80% or more) of their students? If so, then schools should focus only on two things: sharing what is working (so often forgotten), and seeking out ways to help the students who continue to struggle. And the best place to start with this would be to look at the data.
Is there one particular area in which most students struggle? In specific grade levels, are students progressing in all important areas across classrooms? Are certain subgroups of students experiencing success, while others are not? Are groups working with paraprofessionals progressing just as well as groups with certified teachers? Are specific teachers finding ways to meet the needs of the most struggling students through differentiation in Tier I? The answers to all of these questions, as well as others, provide districts with useful data that can subsequently guide them toward changes that are actually necessary.
2. Research’s Impact on Decisions
Although there is certainly no shortage of educational research published in a variety of sources, there seems to be a lack of knowledge about this research in some schools. In fact, some schools continue to implement and enforce poor instructional programs and procedures that have historically been disproven within reading research.
Round robin reading (one child reading at a time, while others sit, wait, and ‘follow along’) has been shown to be a poor instructional choice, although it continues to prevail in many classrooms around the state and nation.
Schools continue to funnel large amounts of tax payer monies into commercially produced core reading and intervention programs, while mandating that teachers follow them with ‘fidelity’ despite the fact that these programs have failed to consistently demonstrate their effectiveness in a variety of areas of reading. Research shows us that highly effective teachers, and the practices commonly found within their classrooms, are key to improving student reading abilities, not purchased programs.
Research has shown that intervention cannot consist of students placed in front of expensive computer intervention programs to improve reading. Research has also shown that teachers who deeply understand the reading process are the best at reaching the most struggling readers. Yet schools continue to place the greatest emphasis on products touted as ‘the next great fix’ to America’s reading problems.
3. Changes for the “Right” Reasons
Indeed, real change must come for the right reasons with the focus solely on improving reading for all students, especially those who are hardest to teach. And this does not look exactly the same for all students or all teachers. There is indeed not ‘one, right way’ to teach reading. Although research has identified commonalities among high quality teachers and interventionists, at the same time there are subtle differences in the ways that these teachers go about their daily instructional routines and practices. Sometimes we overlook, or fail to focus on the fact that teachers are highly trained individuals who have a set of skills and knowledge that should be valued and acknowledged.
Attempting to ‘control’ the teaching occurring in classrooms within school districts in Ohio, and across the nation, has been a popular yet unsuccessful attempt at improving reading outcomes. Rather than narrowing and controlling the instruction and materials that teachers use, no matter their track record with improving reading for children, we should be learning from the high quality teachers and acknowledging their successes. Effective practices at the classroom or small group level are not hard to find, yet are rarely shared. We have teachers who are doing it, yet we are instead searching for products to put into the hands of all teachers.
If we truly want to improve reading instruction for students we should work harder and smarter at searching for what each child needs, and then find a highly effective teacher who can deliver practices aimed at these needs.
No purchase order required!